Report Evaluates Russian Nuclear Weapons Security

Philipp C. Bleek

A February 2002 annual report to Congress from the National Intelligence Council concludes that Russia maintains “adequate” control over its nuclear weapons but warns that although “nuclear [weapons complex] security has been slowly improving over the last several years, risks remain.”

Russia maintains “adequate security and control of its nuclear weapons, but a decline in military funding has stressed the nuclear security system,” the report states. The document characterizes an unauthorized or accidental use of a Russian nuclear weapon as “highly unlikely,” given “current technical and procedural safeguards.”

However, the report qualifies this positive assessment, noting, “The security system was designed in the Soviet era to protect weapons primarily against a threat outside the country and may not be sufficient to meet today’s challenge of a knowledgeable insider collaborating with a criminal or terrorist group.”

The document also assesses the security problems at Russia’s nuclear complex, noting that “security varies widely” among Russia’s facilities and institutes. “Facilities housing weapons-usable nuclear material…typically receive low funding, lack trained security personnel, and do not have sufficient equipment for securely storing such material,” the report states.

The report also observes that “weapons-grade and weapons-usable nuclear materials have been stolen from some Russian institutes.” Most notably, the report cites an unconfirmed allegation by Viktor Yerastov, head of the Russian Ministry of Atomic Energy’s Nuclear Materials Accounting and Control Department, that an amount of fissile material “quite sufficient to produce an atomic bomb” was stolen from an unidentified site at the Chelyabinsk nuclear complex in 1998.

The National Intelligence Council—a group of senior experts from both inside and outside the intelligence community—expressed concern over the total amount of material that could have been stolen over the past decade and concluded that “undetected smuggling has occurred, although we do not know the extent or magnitude of such thefts.”

The report also notes that Russia has announced its intention to expand its nuclear power generation capacity substantially and states that “even with increased security…Russian nuclear power plants almost certainly will remain vulnerable to a well-planned and executed terrorist attack.”

Finally, the report noted that the aging of Russia’s nuclear weapons and President Vladimir Putin’s plans to shift funding to conventional forces will likely result in Russia having fewer than 2,000 strategic warheads by 2015. But the report said that Moscow will probably retain several thousand tactical nuclear warheads “because of concerns over its deteriorating conventional capabilities.”